Sunday, August 20, 2006

The London Terror Thingy

A bit over a week ago it hit the news that the poms had busted a group of people who were planning on blowing up some planes in mid air. The plan allegedly involved using a binary liquid explosive smuggled onto the plane in component form and mixed up on the plane. Since then the governments have enforced a stupidly high level of security at airports, A huge number of people have either had flights delayed or cancelled, and the media has gone on another fear mongering frenzy.

My initial reaction was that the heightened security and so forth was a massive overreaction, which I still say is the case. There are several reasons for this.

First, there is the way this plot was detected. This was achieved through old fashioned crime detection techniques. It did not need any of the extra powers governments have said they needed to detect this sort of thing and all the extra security added to airports wouldn't have done any better than the security a decade ago. So if the tools we had before we did any upgrading due to terrorism are working, what justification is there for extra powers that come at a great cost to our civil liberties.

The second reason has come from some articles I've come across on the nature of binary explosives, and in particular the chemicals that were supposed to be used in this plot. Binary liquid explosives are popular in movies (see Die Hard with a Vengeance for an example) but are not as practical in real life. The chemicals that were alleged to have been used are especially impractical. One of the reactants is very reactive, and difficult to safely store, and has a very strong odor, making it very hard to get onto a plane (a shampoo bottle is not a safe container for this stuff). The other chemical is not as troublesome, but the mixing process is. Firstly, it's a very exothermic reaction, and the completed explosive is very sensitive to shock and temperature. To make enough of it to sufficiently damage a plane requires a significant amount of time, and even if you try doing it in the bathroom so the person sitting next to you doesn't ask what it is that you're mixing up, after an hour or two in there, someone going to complain to the crew. Premixing isn't going to work either, because of the sensitivity of the final product. (The main source for this is the Interesting People mailing list, the actual message is here. There is a followup that describes an binary explosive used in demining here.)

A third factor is a few of the things I've heard about the people arrested. There was no great knowledge of chemistry, no detailed plans of what was to be done, no plane tickets had been bought, and some didn't even have a passport (more info here).

The media has had a field day with the sensational aspects of these events, but haven't looked at all the details that mean it's not as bad as they were saying. Over in America, CNN spent a whole day scaring its viewers about how vulnerable they were.

End Post
Writing time: 41 minutes
Time since last post: 4 days
Current media: Bullshit!

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